- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

BANCROFT, Neb. (AP) - Preparing meals for dozens of children every day, knowing that some of them won’t like the food, is part of the job of being a school cook.

Becky Wortman has been doing this long enough not to take it personally.

“You can’t please everybody,” Wortman told the Sioux City Journal (https://bit.ly/1NAfuqP ).

She doesn’t let it bother her. What bothers her are the hairnets. Wortman does not like wearing the hairnets.

“I hate the hairnets,” she said, adding it emphatically to her comments at the end of an interview.

On Thursday, Wortman will wear the hated hairnet for the last time as she prepares and serves her final meal after 34 years in food service at Bancroft-Rosalie Public School.

May is the time when another school year ends along with long careers spent inside those schools. We often hear of the beloved teachers or principals who are retiring.

But inside every school are people like Wortman - food service workers, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers and others. They’re not teachers, but many of these workers have spent decades working there, performing important tasks that keep every school running smoothly.

Tasks like preparing meals to give students the energy needed to pay attention and learn.

“We’re not just cooks, we’re a vital part of the educational system,” Wortman said.

And, in Wortman’s case, she’s loved just about every minute of working in the kitchen, first in Rosalie beginning in 1982, then in Bancroft after the schools consolidated in 1983. For the past 30 years, she’s been the district’s food service manager, entrusted with making sure the lunches — and since 2001, breakfasts, too — served to 250-270 students every day are healthy and, hopefully, tasty.

“I think for the most part they like it,” she said. “We just do their favorites and balance it through the week.”

It’s a tough balancing act. Nutrition guidelines change. New foods and ingredients get added to meet those requirements, but not always to the students’ satisfaction. Sweet potato fries were one of those experiments, until the high school students piled all the uneaten fries onto a couple trays and returned them at the end of the lunch period to make their point.

“They just didn’t want them,” Wortman said.

There are plenty of items that are much more popular than the sweet potatoes. Chili and cinnamon rolls are always popular. Homemade pizza is a big hit. Students like the taco and super nacho bars, too.

“You need to follow the regulations, but you also need to feed the kids, keep them happy and give them healthy choices,” Wortman said.

And document it all. Wortman won’t miss all the record-keeping that goes into planning meals and ordering commodities. It’s hard enough to cook and clean up the kitchen afterward.

“You’re on your feet a lot, lifting a lot of heavy things,” Wortman said. “It’s a lot of stressful, heavy work.”

And it’s fun. Working in the kitchen allowed Wortman to see her own children, and now her grandchildren, in school every day.

“To get in with the school was kind of nice,” said Wortman, whose mother was a teacher. She also has a sister teaching here. “The school system’s been in my blood.”

Wortman’s husband, Jerry, retired from farming a couple years ago, and they’ll continue to enjoy traveling and camping during the summer while fixing up a house in Maskell, Nebraska. There will be more time to see grandchildren.

Wortman will happily hang up the hairnet, but will take many fond memories with her.

“I’ll miss the kids, and the staff is so great,” she said. “It’s like an extended family here.”

A family for whom she’s made thousands of meals.


Information from: Sioux City Journal, https://www.siouxcityjournal.com

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